Spots of Time

August 10, 2004

Lights, Camera, Shanghai Action!

There are lots of ways to make money (or save money) while traveling. I've met people who have worked in guest houses in Cambodia, selling jewelry on the street in Colombia, cutting traveler's hair in youth hostels in Peru, telling in depth horoscopes in Thailand, working for American companies in Singapore, and volunteering in an ashram in India. In my own experience I've taught English in China, been a technical writer, waitress and salesgirl in Australia, volunteered in Thailand, and --most recently --been an extra in a business film in Shanghai. Some jobs have been great, some jobs have been shit, but all the jobs offered me an insight into a different world than that of the ordinary traveler --an insight into the every day world of the people in the country I was visiting.

My most recent experience, as an extra in some kind of a promotional video for a business in Shanghai, came about quite suddenly. A few days ago my friend Mike (whom readers may remember from the guest column "Five Minutes Being Turkish") called me at my hotel and asked if I would like to accompany him on a shoot that evening. A casting director had called him and indicated they needed some westerners to be extras. The job would take about 2.5 hours, was being shot in a Shanghai hotel and paid 200 Yuan (about $25 US dollars). I quickly agreed. I'd never been an extra in anything and it sounded a bit glamorous and exciting.

We arrived shortly before 8 p.m. and were ushered upstairs (along with a young German man) where a room was set up to look like a huge business party, complete with a tower of champagne glasses in the middle of the room. I immediately vowed to go nowhere near it, as images of it crashing down because of me were flashing in my head. Some of the PAs were pouring red grape drink into it, while about two dozen Chinese extras were standing around looking bored.

The casting director introduced us to the unit director, a hip looking man with a mustache and long hair. He was wearing faded jeans, a green tank top and canvas All Stars. We had been told to dress in business attire and there was immediately some discussion (in Chinese) about the German man wearing jeans with his white button down and tie. Luckly for me I had some custom clothes made in Beijing, including a suit, as "business attire" isn't normally a part of my traveler wardrobe. Once settled the unit director scrutinized Mike and I individually and I felt immediately insecure about my appearance --most notably the fact that my skin was broken out and my hair was messy. After a few seconds I was sent to make up, apparently having passed the test - but needing some added "professional assistance."

The make up woman covered me in base and powder, copious amounts of eye shadow and bright lips stick- the first time I've worn makeup in over a year. She also did some bizarre thing with my hair which I didn't notice until later as I didn't have time to look into a mirror before it was time to start. While I was getting "done up" several of the Chinese extras were staring at me, and I felt somewhat movie star-like, though by now this was a common experience in China. Though China has been open to westerners for more than 20 years now, there is still a lot curiosity and wonder about foreigners, and even in Shanghai, arguably the most western city, I have been stared out quite blatantly more times than I can count. While in this particular case it didn't bother me, there have been many times I have wanted nothing more than anonymity in my travels.

After a while we were positioned on the set, given a champagne glass with pink grape soda and waited while the director, unit director and technicians rushed around settling the scene. All instruction was in Chinese, and the casting director translated though it wasn't hard to figure out that we were meant to be at a party and were suppose to act accordingly --smiling, clinking glasses, laughing, etc. When the boss came by --a white westerner who appeared to be from somewhere in Europe --we would smile brightly and raise our glasses in a toast to him.

The shoot took about 2.5 hours and after a while the thrill of the experience waned. While people who spoke some English frequently surrounded Mike during the shoots, most of my "party friends" did not, so we smiled and spoke gibberish to each other during shoots and otherwise went about our own business. During one scene Mike and I were paired up chatting and toasted the boss as he came to join our group --I called this the "appeal to western workers" shot. I jokingly asked the boss, during the scene, if we were going to get raises --he laughed but not genuinely. Later, watching him, I could tell the last place he wanted to be was here shooting, and he was frequently on the sidelines talking in his cell phone while the unit director stood in for him for lighting checks.

People watching was my main activity during the frequent down times, and I loved watching the different personalities. A middle aged man near me was busy being "director's pet" - helping to pour the grape juice into the wine glasses, lighting candles and generally fussing about. It cracked me up to watch the unit director position us, because as soon as his back was turned the man would look to wear the camera was and adjust himself in a more prominent position. Some of the extras were quite young - including one high schooler who was earning extra money as a waitress in the hotel - and there was much giggling and laughter between her and one of her coworkers. Before each shot the unit director would yell something in Chinese, and then, just like in the US, count down to Action. Only, instead of "Three, Two, One, ACTION!" he would say, "San, Er, Yi (the Mandarin number equivalents - and then in English), ACTION!" His only other English words were, "Take a rest."

At the end of the night, after everyone left (different pay scale for Chinese and Westerners, apparently) the casting director paid us and we went home. I was pretty tired and my feet were sore, but the experience was so unique that quite honestly I would have done it without pay. Still, it was fun to go shopping the next day and use half of my hard earned money to buy a "genuine" Prada purse for 100 Yuan. The casting director asked me how long I would be in Shanghai and he indicated we might see each other again if he had another job - as it was Mike was getting sent out the next day for another gig - as a talk show host!

Either way, it was fun being a Shanghai star for a couple of hours - even though I still don't know the name of the company I was meant to represent!